Pakistan’s Visa Diplomacy Dilemma

The T-20 Cricket World Cup 2021 is scheduled to take place in India later this year. The game, most popular in South Asia, draws thousands of fans from both India and Pakistan. Owing to draconian visa policies, Pakistani fans are often restricted from traveling across its borders.  This complicates the process through which fans can follow sporting events on both sides of the border. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has had to seek a written assurance from the Board of Cricket Control India (BCCI) to ensure Pakistani fans are granted visas.

Even though India and Pakistan share most cultural traditions—celebrating each other’s festivals, movie industries, cuisines, and, of course, cricket matches—restrictive visa policies have prevented substantial cultural diplomacy efforts. Visa restrictiveness is a tool of foreign policy that directly affects citizens’ freedom of movement. Bilateral visa restrictions and India’s significantly greater passport strength have left Pakistan with weaker standing in regional organizations. This has undercut cross-border cultural diplomacy efforts which, in turn, impacts the likelihood of lasting regional peace. As Pakistan is diplomatically weaker than India, it is essential for Pakistan to improve people-to-people ties with its traditional rival.

The Difficulty of Easing Visa Policies and the Politics of Passport Diplomacy

The 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM)-perpetrated attack on the Indian parliament made grim the potential for India-Pakistan cooperation. Both governments attempted to revise prohibitive visa policies in 2004 and 2006 but suspended all progress after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. With the introduction of bilateral peace-building initiatives such as Aman Ki Asha (Hope for Peace) in 2012, Pakistan and India yet again signed a new, more flexible visa agreement. However, cross-border visa services were halted due to the 2019 Balakot airstrikes and Pulwama attack. Despite, the initial success of the Kartarpur Corridor that allowed visa-free entry to Pakistan for Sikh pilgrims, the Corridor has remained closed since the start of the pandemic. Currently, Pakistani passport holders are prohibited from applying for an Indian tourist visa and can only obtain city-specific visas.

As Pakistan is diplomatically weaker than India, it is essential for Pakistan to improve people-to-people ties with its traditional rival.

These high-level political and security concerns have frayed even the strongest bilateral cultural knot—the entertainment industry. Lollywood and Bollywood entertainers, from both India and Pakistan, have been denied visas at an increasing rate over the past five years. Even Pakistani patients attempting to seek treatment across the border have been subjected to flat-out denials. Initiatives such as Aman Ki Asha and Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy—a forum aimed at bridging differences through frequent people-to-people contacts—also lost charm.

Differing passport strengths have also impacted cross-border engagement efforts and national perspectives. Considering the Indian passport ranks higher than the Pakistani passport—India ranked 85th and Pakistan ranked 107th in 2021—India is afforded a wider range of political and cultural diplomacy opportunities. Indian passport holders are permitted to visit 58 countries without obtaining a prior visa whereas Pakistanis only have visa-free access or on-arrival visa to 32 countries. India’s better passport-standing contributes to its global power status—Indian citizens are able to travel further and wider than Pakistanis to promote their culture, engage in dialogue, and develop long-lasting regional and international ties. Security dynamics, political tensions, and differing soft power have impacted visa policies and discredited concrete peace-centric cultural diplomacy initiatives.

Regional Integration and Visa Restrictions

The impact of differing passport strengths is illustrated in the ineffectiveness of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Unlike the European Union (EU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the goal of integrating South Asia for greater connectivity through visa exemption policies remains unmet due to wavering India-Pakistan relations. The SAARC Visa Exemption Sticker was initially limited to 24 categories of entitled persons, including dignitaries, parliamentarians, businessmen, and journalists. However, the visa exemption policies between India and Pakistan for select categories were largely reversed post-2013 considering heightened bilateral tensions. Notably, the websites of the consular service of Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, member countries of SAARC, do not mention visa exemptions for any category of Pakistani citizens.

In the wake of COVID-19, the Indian Prime Minister recommended at a virtual workshop of SAARC free movement of medical personnel and equipment between member states of the SAARC to assist with medical emergencies. Representatives from member countries, including Pakistan, were reported to agree with this measure. If implemented, this could be the first step in opening up other avenues for cross-border trade and tourism through SAARC and encourage India-Pakistan cooperation against regional terrorism and economic depravity; a win-win for all parties. Regional integration efforts can only bear fruit once prohibitive visa policies are reexamined and people-to-people contact is reinitiated.

Economic and Security Benefits of Easing Bilateral Visa Restrictions

Moderating stringent visa policies for cultural diplomacy can also help address bilateral economic and security concerns. Previously, Pakistan enjoyed Most Favored Nation (MFN) status from India which allowed lower customs duty rates and reduced tariffs on products entering India from Pakistan. However, after the February 2019 Pulwama attack, India scrapped Pakistan’s MFN status and imposed a customs duty of 200 percent on all goods from Pakistan. Pakistan then suspended bilateral trade with India in August 2019 after revocation of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir’s special status—India was reported to lose a market of USD $2 billion and Pakistan USD $380 million. Fortunately, India has recently signaled to restart trade with Pakistan which could benefit both countries economically. Increased religious tourism, a point the current Pakistani government has emphasized, can also help boost Pakistan’s underperforming economy. In addition to the Kartarpur Corridor, Pakistan hosts a variety of religious monuments, specifically relevant to the Sikh faith, which can be renovated and reopened to not only generate capital but also improve Pakistan’s international soft power standing.

Building trust amongst peoples and emphasizing commonalities can remove cross-border misperceptions and serve the long-term security interests of both Pakistan and India.

Building trust amongst peoples and emphasizing commonalities can remove cross-border misperceptions and serve the long-term security interests of both Pakistan and India. Friendly exchanges and cultural connections can directly contribute to lasting peace and stability in the subcontinent. Thus, revising prohibitive visa policies enhances cultural connections that diminish long-standing trust deficits between peoples and can help achieve regional economic and security objectives.

Conclusion

South Asia’s lack of integration is exacerbated by the India-Pakistan rivalry— stringent visa policies make it nearly intractable. In 2019, Pakistan relaxed its travel restrictions by offering visas-on-arrival for 50 countries and electronic visa options for 175 countries; however, its neighbor India was not included in either of the lists. Time to mend fences still remains. Only days ago, Pakistan and India recommitted themselves to the 2003 ceasefire arrangement and the Indian High Commission in Pakistan permitted cross-border couples to apply for Indian visas. Cross-border tourism could also help bolster both countries’ post-pandemic economic recovery efforts. The first step towards improving Pakistan’s bilateral and regional visa diplomacy efforts is successfully hosting the 2021 SAARC summit in Islamabad. Pakistan should seek to avoid repeating events of 2016, when India, among other South Asian nations, refused to participate and called off the 2016 SAARC summit in Pakistan in light of attacks on the Indian Army camp in Uri, Jammu and Kashmir. To do so, Pakistan must sustain cordial relations with India and ensure all security measures ahead of the summit.  Leaders should encourage cricket diplomacy as the cornerstone of Pakistan-India cultural ties; cross-border travel for the T20 world cup could present a silver-lining in otherwise restrained relations. Easing visa restrictions and allowing more frequent cross-border travel to foster cultural engagement could be the antidote to the historic bilateral rivalry.

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Image 1: Umair Khan via Flickr

Image 2: Ashish Singh via Twitter

Posted in , Border, Economy, Geopolitics, India, Pakistan, Regional Connectivity, Security, South Asia, Visas

Ameena Tanvir

Ameena Tanvir is a PhD scholar at the South Asian Center in Punjab University, Lahore. She earned her M. Phil degree from Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Her areas of interest include Sino-Pak relations, CPEC, South Asia and climate change. Ameena has previously served as Vice-Chairman Pakistan People’s Party Women Wing, Punjab. She tweets @AmeenaTanvir and can be reached at [email protected]

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